Convenience vs. sustainability: Good news from Knoxville

by Aug 31, 2017

For over a decade now in our Pulse studies, we’ve asked consumers to tell us their priority: comfort, convenience or the environment? And for years, convenience and comfort clearly reigned.

Now the environment has begun to surpass convenience in our polling – we explored the evidence of a cultural shift in last year’s Eco Pulse, and we’ll continue to watch/explore/explain this shift in the months ahead.

A cultural shift is like a sea change – rising levels overall of sustainability. But water levels can also be influenced by local conditions and “weather patterns” – so we look there, too, for evidence of a bigger cultural shift toward sustainability. We’re seeing one of those interesting local “weather patterns” of sustainable behaviors right here in Knoxville, Tennessee – and we think it’s worth exploring.

From convenient curbside to extra effort

We’ve all seen the data: when a community institutes single-stream, curbside recycling, recycling rates go up. In short, when a city makes it easier for its residents to recycle, they start doing it more often.

Glass has become an economic issue, however, and many communities, including Knoxville, have stopped accepting glass in their curbside programs. As of last January, glass must be dropped off at locations scattered around the city.

During the first month of glass being harder to recycle, the amount taken to the drop-off centers surged. The curbside vs. drop-off change had been well publicized, so glass recycling was on people’s minds. We figured most residents would cease to make the extra effort as news coverage faded away and the need for convenience kicked back in.

Here’s where things get interesting

The amount of glass taken to drop-off centers stayed high during the entire first half of 2017.

While the actual amount has varied from month to month, the average amount of glass taken to the drop-off centers from January to July was 48.28 tons per month. “Compare this to the average monthly amount during 2016 (28 tons of glass/month) and see that Knoxvillians are taking the extra step!” Rachel Butzler, Solid Waste Manager for the City of Knoxville, wrote me.

This almost 75% increase suggests that curbside recyclers are, in fact, taking the time and effort to drop off their glass recycling. The city did the math to make sure these numbers weren’t caused by more recycling overall being taken to the drop-off centers. In fact, non-glass recyclables had decreased at the drop-off centers, which the Solid Waste Office attributed to a recent participation increase in the city’s curbside program.

Counter to culture  

We live in a culture that demands convenience – quite literally, as we command Alexa to play us music or order groceries … as we hold devices that put all the web at our highly mobile fingertips. This is so intriguing to us because it’s the opposite – the easy way to recycle glass was taken away, and some people have elected to go the extra mile.

The data isn’t there for us to make a statement like X% of curbside participants are now using the drop-offs for glass and here’s why. But in general, our research and several common human behavior models suggest that when we make a sustainable action harder, people are less likely to do it. And years of research – ours and others’ – show there’s often a gap between people’s attitudes about sustainability and their actions.

So what’s this all about – what makes some people go the extra mile here in Knoxville? And what’s behind the bigger shift in priorities we’re seeing at the national scale? Here are a few ideas we think are worth pondering.

Has recycling become part of our identities?

Perhaps we’ve reached a point where certain sustainable habits, like recycling, are so deeply ingrained in our culture that to stop would be a case of cognitive dissonance … of suddenly viewing oneself in a changed light, going from responsible to wasteful. (And maybe we’re afraid of the neighbors viewing us differently, too.)

Did a feeling of loss spark higher engagement?

A number of recyclers told me their response last January was, “It’s not OK to make doing the right thing harder!” Loss aversion is a strong motivator; in this case, the emotional response to the “loss” seems to have jolted attitudes and actions into alignment and given the new recycling behavior a jump start. What other emotional triggers could be contributing to shifts in priorities at a bigger scale?

Is social good winning out over personal inconvenience?

Most of the curbside recyclers I’ve talked to in my area think about recycling in terms of social and environmental value – preventing waste, helping the community help the environment – and that value outweighs the personal inconvenience for them. Are more people connecting more deeply with the social/environmental value of sustainable habits, as opposed to thinking primarily in terms of personal benefits? We also wonder how the current political context has influenced how people value recycling or other sustainable actions.

Degrees of progress

We’re excited to share good news from our city with you! Obviously, we’ve got limited data covering 7 months. But our fingers are crossed that the momentum will continue – and that this is a sign of things to come. We’ll continue to keep up with the results over time.

What have you seen?

We’re also excited to follow up on last year’s promising evidence of a cultural shift in our next Eco Pulse. In the meantime, have you seen evidence of shifting priorities when it comes to convenience and the environment? We’d love to hear about it.

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About the Author

Meghan McDonald

Meghan concepts and writes copy for clients and also reviews creative deliverables for clarity, grammar and brand alignment. She brings an interdisciplinary background in environmental studies and journalism to our team. If you want to know the name of a tree or flower, she’s the one to ask.

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